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As Castro fades, a crop of new Cuban leaders

Interviews with two younger political figures suggest a gradual opening both economically and socially.

By Tom FawthropContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 2006



HAVANA, CUBA

In a country that is in the process of bidding a long farewell to its ageing revolutionaries, Mariela Castro brings an expectation of change along with an air of youthful passion. As the director of Cenesex (the National Sex Education Center) Ms. Castro is eager to consider where Cuba should go in a postrevolutionary era.

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"We have many contradictions in Cuba," says Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro, Cuba's de facto leader and brother of ailing President Fidel Castro. A Spanish doctor arrived in Cuba last week, reenergizing speculation about the health of the Cuban leader, who has not been seen in public since undergoing surgery in July. "We need to experiment and to test what really works, to make public ownership more effective, rather than simply adopting wholesale free-market reforms," Ms. Castro says.

Leaders like Ms. Castro may indicate the extent to which a post-Castro Cuba may be willing to liberalize, both economically and socially. As Cuba's old-guard leadership fades, this new generation – made up primarily of the sons and daughters of those who fought in the 1959 Communist revolution – is perhaps more sympathetic to economic reforms and more-liberal social policies.

Nevertheless, Cuba-watchers and experts have ruled out any dramatic lurch toward a liberal market economy that might undermine the island nation's heritage as the persistent holdout of traditional Communist policies. More relaxed social attitudes may also evolve gradually.

Still, no one doubts that change is afoot.

"The transition in Cuba has already taken place" and this new generation has a key role to play, says Richard Gott, a Latin American analyst and former foreign correspondent for the London-based The Guardian newspaper. "Carlos Lage will be the brains behind the new government. He, together with Julio Soberon at the central bank, will seek to chart a new economic course."

Now Raul Castro has started to echo some of his daughter's sentiments. Addressing university students, he urged that they should ''fearlessly engage in public debate and analysis," according to Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

Cuba is one of several Latin American countries that once harassed homosexuals as a matter of policy. But Mariela Castro, who is also an executive member of the World Association for Sexual Health, insists that job discrimination and mass arrests are a thing of the past.

"[Homosexuals] still sometimes face arrest by bigoted police" says Castro, adding that she has sometimes clashed with the authorities in her efforts to release gay men and women from prison.

"Now, society is more relaxed. There is no official repression of gays and lesbians," she argues confidently.

A writer turned politico

Cuban writer and culture minister Abel Prieto has also emerged as an influential power broker in a changing Cuba. Since joining the state bureaucracy and the politburo, the long-haired, middle-aged minister still exudes a passion for culture and a common touch.

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